The Sunlight Plane: A gripping flight but a flat landing
“The summertime sky in Mumbai was usually white, because the sun glared at it until it went pale with fear, and the blue it was supposed to be dripped off the surface of the atmosphere and fell into the Arabian Sea.”
Damini Kane’s debut novel, The Sunlight Plane, opens with these lines. No, they’re not a poetic version of one of those mundane weather-and-sky conversations you resort to in the absence of ice-breakers. These artfully woven words not only convey the story’s setting, which is further specified as a gated community in Maximum City, aptly christened Reyna Heights. (‘Reyna’ is the Hindi word for ‘night’. Similarly pronounced is Reina, the Istanbul nightclub that saw a tragic shooting in 2017. In the latter case, however, the name probably meant ‘queen’, which perhaps explains the well-to-do status of Reina’s clientele and Reyna Heights’ residents.) The sentence in question also symbolises the things to come and further verbalises the contents of the cover.
The title comprises the words ‘sunlight’ and ‘plane’, both associated with the sky. (In the book, it refers to a solar plane whose journey mimics the plot, though I wasn’t convinced by the analogy.) So is the yellow paper plane on the cover, which cannot soar as high as its fuel-driven counterpart. Moreover, the former is associated with childhood—playful, simple, innocent. Whereas airplanes represent ambition, adulthood, complexity—and baggage. (Hold on to this equation; we’re going to return to it.)
The first part of this comparison applies to our nine-year-old protagonist, Tharush, whose name is the Hindi word for—you guessed it right—‘sky’. He is the hue of summer, the month-long period when kids get a reprieve from schoolwork if not the killing sun. Tharush is bright and child-like and has loving, caring and wisecracking parents. If it’s too hot, he stays home and lets his imagination run amok. While showering, he equates bathroom tiles to ‘different universes’. The lack of a sibling makes him want a friend, although he feigns contentment at his solitude, which he tries to drown by playing with fighter-jet toys and, thus, expressing his Air Force aspirations. The only dark spot in Tharush’s life is a bully called Vikram, whose powerful influence and violent temperament has robbed Tharush of his friends from the neighbourhood.
Where there’s ‘Reyna’, there ought to be ghosts and monsters too. What if there’s someone more dangerous and threatening than Vikram? This brings us to the next most important character in the book who fits the second part of our aforementioned comparison.
A new boy in the neighbourhood becomes Tharush’s first ever best friend. His name? Aakash. Sky again. Aakash, too, seems bright and sunny at the outset when he steals Vikram’s “electric blue” bicycle for a quick ride with Tharush. But he comes across as someone more mature than Tharush. Besides, he’s smart and taller, and unlike Tharush, loves reading.
The complexity, however, spans more than just these qualities. On the one hand, Aakash can skilfully and courageously pick locks, even in bully territory. On the other, he nervously keeps glancing at the clock while playing with Tharush in the latter’s room. Tharush doesn’t have to become a fighter pilot to figure out that Aakash’s sky isn’t bright and sunny like his. It’s dark, overcast and turbulent, loaded with tons of baggage. And it has left big black and blue imprints all over his tender nine-year-old body. Aakash is a victim of child abuse.
Tharush’s summer now turns into the dilemma of a monsoon sky. Should I confide in someone and, hence, wipe out the dark clouds from Aakash’s life? Or should I let them be, even though they’re scattering pain and agony through violent, scary outbursts? Doubtful about a future without his father, despite his monstrosity, Aakash makes Tharush promise to stay tight-lipped. Tharush, thus, reluctantly chooses friendship over his friend, and like Shiva as ‘Neel’-kanth, gulps the poison, which isn’t half as bad as his buddy’s daily plight. Tharush isn’t complicit, as there’s a clear intention to do something. But as his father puts it in the climax after the revelation, one can’t take a right decision in a situation so wrong. The ambition bit in the comparison comes from Aakash’s guitar lessons at Qawwali, the neighbourhood music store owned by a hipster Tasleem didi, as well as from his auditions for the school concert and his aim to appear for the Trinity exam. Music is more than just me-time for Aakash. It’s his way of expression and catharsis. It’s the fighter jets for the Tharush in him.
Aakash’s silence would have made sense if his father were his only family. (His mother, tired of the abuse, had left home, though it’s unclear why she never took Aakash along and left him to rot in hell. Or did she intend to commit suicide along the way?) But towards the middle of the book, we meet Aakash’s unmarried paternal aunt, a Supreme Court lawyer in her late forties who’s light years away from her evil brother (and unaware about his history of violent behaviour). If Aakash knows he’ll end up in her custody sooner or later (which is what happens eventually), why the silence? Why suffer so much and let the devil get away with it? Also, how come the aunt doesn’t know about Aakash’s mother’s disappearance and the reason behind it? These issues stick out like loose wires in an otherwise well-oiled narrative that’s full of gut-wrenching moments.
The book is divided into three sections: The Sun, The Clouds and The Sky. The first—the build-up and conflict—while intriguing, does have some pacing issues, like an unnecessarily long flight or an endless scorching summer. Besides, Tharush’s easy return to his imaginary games after witnessing his friend’s ordeal appears too abrupt. It’s only from the second part, when the conflict is heightened, that the speed intensifies. The third part—the resolution—is the shortest but feels like an unsatisfactory landing. While Aakash gets his relatively happy ending in Delhi, a metropolis at variance with Mumbai mainly in terms of climate, Tharush is left friendless and lonely in sultry Mumbai, especially after his bitterness towards his schoolmates over their alleged “complicity”. Moreover, Aakash’s father is never nabbed, which feels like a stab of injustice. The two boys have mobile phones, but we know it’s not the same as walking to school and playing together. Their friendship is, thus, seasonal.
Does TSP deserve to be your airport read? Short answer: yes. The fact that nobody, not even Tharush’s parents or the boys’ teachers, could detect what was happening with a little lad under their noses calls for an awareness drill. And given the serious dearth of literature on this subject, particularly in the Indian fiction scene, TSP is the best ice-breaker we have now.
The Sunlight Plane
Author: Damini Kane
Publisher: Author Press